|Nets and Salmon Cart, by Joan Eardley,1962|
THIS FEATURE APPEARED IN THE HERALD ARTS SUPPLEMENT GALLERIES SECTION, WHICH I CURRENTLY WRITE EVERY WEEK, ON MARCH 30.
The Scottish Gallery
16 Dundas Street, Edinburgh
0131 558 1200
“I always identify Joan with the sea, and it is a valid identification. There is the gentle sunlit sea one delights in, in the summer. And even in bad weather it is still a summer sea. This was the Joan that I think everyone knew. This is the sea most people know. But there is the magnificent winter sea, in all its indomitable grandeur and the wild, turbulent and terrifying splendour. This was Joan too.”
These words were written about the painter Joan Eardley by her friend Audrey Walker, not long after she died in 1963, at the age of just 42.
As recently revealed in The Herald, Walker – a sheriff's wife and also a talented musician who gave up her career to raise her family – was also Eardley’s lover.
This fact is not dealt with salaciously in a new book about Eardley, written by Christopher Andreae. It is in there as part of a bigger picture painted of a remarkable Scottish artist, along with Walker’s tribute which has never been published before.
Most moving of all are letters written to Walker by Eardley on a daily basis when she was living and working in the north east coastal village of Catterline.
The letters are gentle and loving. (‘Dear dear you,’ she writes to Walker at one point, ‘I love you so much. It is often almost too painful to be away from you for so long.’
For my part, as a fan – and there are legions of us guarding her memory fiercely – reading them made me love Eardley more as an artist and as a human being.
Today, 50 years after her death, the passion which lies within Eardley’s paintings continues to fascinate viewers.
Born in Sussex to a Scots mother and an English father, who was gassed in the first world war and who committed suicide when Joan was eight and her sister, Pat, was six, the all-female Eardley family moved to Bearsden following the outbreak of war in 1939.
She went on to be a star pupil at Glasgow School of Art. By the time of her death in 1963, her work was heading towards abstract expressionism and her work was being recognised outside Scotland.
In 2007, a major exhibition of her work at the National Gallery of Scotland (NGoS) wowed a new generation who came to her work for the first time.
In the large gallery space on The Mound, Eardley’s Catterline seascapes possessed a power which was almost bewitching. Viewers familiar with Joan Eardley’s portraits of Glasgow street kids from the 1950s and early 1960s suddenly saw this artist through fresh eyes.
This Wednesday (April 3), a new exhibition of Eardley’s work, the first major display of her paintings since the retrospective, opens in The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh.
This exhibition coincides with the publication of Andreae’s new illustrated monograph on Eardley and already, almost half the work has been sold.
This exhibition spans the full gamut of Eardley’s output, and features rare early works from her travels to France and Italy on travelling scholarships, studies of children in inner city Glasgow and on-the-spot paintings made in Catterline.
The late works in this exhibition hint at the artist she may have been had she lived.
The last year of her life was, in her own words, propelling her art towards the place which ‘hangs between reality and abstraction’.
Some of the work has not been seen in public since the 1964 memorial exhibition held by the Scottish Gallery, which had a close association with Eardley during her lifetime.
According to Christina Jansen, director of The Scottish Gallery, there are works on show which have never been seen in public before.
“These are really paintings which need to be seen on the walls,” she says. “Looking at Joan Eardley’s work online doesn’t compare to seeing it in front of you. She was not painting for anyone else; she was painting for herself. She could also do it on any scale – working with what she had in front of her.
“One of the wonderful things about the new book about Joan is hearing her voice. The way she writes is so unpretentious. There’s a bit in the book in which she talks about standing rooted to the spot, painting. Not moving; returning to it day after day, so that she made her own mark on the land, leaving her painting paraphernalia all around her. The way she describes it is almost cinematic. It’s almost as though she is going back to pre-history – just like the landscape around Catterline.”
This new book will delight her fans. The fact she has been ‘outed’ half a century after her death is incidental. What is important about this aspect of the book, is the way in which it paints a more rounded picture of her as a human being and as an artist who painted intense emotion into her artworks.
This exhibition, alongside a second exhibition of Eardley’s work at The Portland Gallery in London which opens on May 1, presents buyers and admirers alike with the opportunity to see Eardley’s work up close.
One of the additional highlights is a 22 minute colour film featuring Eardley called Three Scottish Painters made in 1964, which will be showing in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. The gallery website also has a wealth of material which will delight fans.